YouTube as a Source of Health Misinformation

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The Internet is rapidly transforming healthcare. Not only is it creating new connections for the access, sharing and exchange of information, it is cultivating a new level of knowledge among patients, enabling them to have input into decisions about their healthcare. Indeed, 80% of adult Americans say they have researched at least one specific health topic, either information on exercise and fitness, or information about immunizations or vaccines, online at some point [1]. A 2003 WebMD study found that consumers spent more time researching health information online than any other media source [2].

Unfortunately, with all the reliable health information online, an equal or greater amount of misinformation also exists. An article in the Economist last year discussed the exponential increase in user-generated content, encouraged by sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Wikipedia, and its affect on healthcare [3]. The article concluded by quoting a professor at Harvard Medical School:

Many doctors, he says, “don’t get the wisdom of crowds.” But he thinks the combined knowledge of a crowd of his patients would be far greater than his own.

However, the trouble with “The Wisdom of Crowds” or “Crowdsourcing” is that a group of people connected by a network doesn’t necessarily mean they will work together as or more effectively than in traditional organizations.

… Quite simply, not all crowds are wise.

In his book “The Wisdom of Crowds”, James Surowiecki wrote the following [4]:

The smartest groups are made up of people with diverse perspectives who are able to stay independent of each other. Independence doesn’t imply rationality or impartiality. You can be biased and irrational, but as long as you’re independent, you won’t make the group any dumber.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined “The Wisdom of Crowds” by evaluating YouTube as a source of information on immunization [5]. University of Toronto researchers searched YouTube using the keywords “vaccination” and “immunization”, and measured users interaction with the videos using view counts and viewer reviews indicated by the star-rating system. Scientists evaluated 153 videos:

  • 73 (48%) of the videos were positive, meaning the central message of the video supported immunization (e.g. described the benefits and safety of immunizing, described immunization as a social good, or encouraged people to receive immunizations).
  • 49 (32%) of the videos were negative, meaning the central message of the video portrayed immunization negatively (e.g. emphasized the risk of immunization, advocated against immunizing, promoted distrust in vaccine science, made allegations of conspiracy or collusion between supporters of vaccination and manufacturers).
  • 31 (20%) of the videos were ambiguous, meaning the video contained either a debate or was ambivalent.

Although almost half the videos were positive and only 20% were negative, compared with positive videos, negative videos were more likely to receive a rating, had a higher mean star rating and more views.

The videos were then rated for scientific accuracy based on the 2006 Canadian Immunization Guide, which has recommendations similar to those from the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. None of the positive videos contradicted the Guide. However, nearly half of the negative videos (22 of 49; 45%) carried messages that did contradict the Guide. These included messages that general childhood immunization can cause autism and that scentific research supports the link between thimerosal and autism. However, perhaps the most striking data from the study was that, among the positive videos, public service announcements received the lowest mean ratings and the fewest views.

The authors comment at the end of the study that:

The video ratings and view counts suggest the presence of a community of YouTube users critical of immunization.

And that community of YouTube users is growing rapidly. According to a December 2007 report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, the typical share of internet users going to video sites was nearly twice as large as it was in December 2006 [6].

With the pervasiveness of blogs and RSS on the Internet today, content has become a commodity. Indeed, “information overload” tends to be everywhere. With too much information and not enough time, capturing an audience’s attention is paramount. Everyone has heard the cliché: “Content is King”. In the age of Web 2.0 and YouTube, packaging, not content, has clearly become King. This is the message public health authorities and others trying to communicate accurate health information need to pay attention to: it’s not just what you say, it’s how it’s presented.


  1. Fox S and Fallows D. Internet Health Resources: Health searches and email have become more commonplace, but there is room for improvement in searches and overall Internet access. Pew Internet & American Life Project. 2003 July 16.
  2. Research Reveals That Internet Has Become Primary Means by Which Consumers Access Health Information. WebMD press release. 2003 Feb 10.
  3. Health 2.0. The Economist. 2007 Sep 6.
  4. Suroweicki J. (2004). The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations. Boston: Little, Brown, Boston.
  5. Keelan et al. YouTube as a source of information on immunization: a content analysis. JAMA. 2007 Dec 5;298(21):2482-4. DOI: 10.1001/jama.298.21.2482
    View abstract
  6. Rainie L. Increased Use of Video-sharing Sites. Pew Internet & American Life Project. 2008 Jan 9.
About the Author

Walter Jessen is a senior writer for Highlight HEALTH Media.


  1. Perhaps to better alleviate both the concern of doctors and the public they could find a way to get official videos out on Youtube created by real doctors or professionals of the sort that can get the correct information out there to the public. It would be help to provide the sources and in order to know its official the video must have a special mark created and approved by medical associations. I would by no means encourage anyone to get their medical advice from Youtube, Facebook, Myspace, or other social websites. But its good people are informed and that the information is out there for everyone to see. People should go to websites like WebMD which are official and safe for people to use. However some people will rely on Youtube of all places. Now it’s not the job of doctors or anyone to make these videos but I don’t think it would hurt anyone to think about these things. But the best bet for everyone is just go talk to your doctor if you just don’t understand something or have any question for that matter.

  2. Hi Kyle: you have a really good idea. It would be great if there was a section of YouTube for video content that was reviewed. This would allow scientific and medical videos to still take advantage of YouTube’s popularity while ensuring the viewer that the information was accurate. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Hi! I am a student and very often i need to check for information online (every day). I have to check 1000 articles till i found what i need and what is true. It is full with “misinformation”, which in some cases can be even dangerous.

  4. There is indeed a very dangerous amount of misinformation on youtube. The scientific community is going to have to get on there and counter it, before their patients are screwed up beyond repair before they get to them. Youtube is singlehandedly giving new life to AIDS Denialism, and the charlatan Gary Null is leading the charge.

    MIT, Harvard and several other educational institutions also have youtube accounts and there needs to be an initiative to get their videos more publicity.


  1. […] I published a new article on Highlight HEALTH 2.0 titled YouTube as a Source of Health Misinformation. The article describes a recent study examining “The Wisdom of Crowds” by evaluating […]

  2. […] YouTube as a Source of Health Misinformation (Highlight Health): A nice review from Walter Jessen: In the age of Web 2.0 and YouTube, packaging, not content, has clearly become King. This is the message public health authorities and others trying to communicate accurate health information need to pay attention to: it’s not just what you say, it’s how it’s presented. […]

  3. […] Walter Jessen at Highlight HEALTH 2.0, which is focused on following web 2.0 in health and medicine, says YouTube is a Source of Health Misinformation. […]

  4. […] presents YouTube as a Source of Health Misinformation posted at Highlight HEALTH 2.0, saying, "Online social networks allow users to tap into […]

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  6. […] there is a large amount of reliable health information online, an equal or greater amount of misinformation also exists. Many health seekers have grown accustomed to repeatedly reviewing search results, revising the […]

  7. […] which collective knowledge is thought to be superior to the intelligence of the few. Nevertheless, not all crowds are wise. Recent cases and new research suggests that crowdsourcing is only truly successful when it is […]